Cast: Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Mavis Staples and Moms Mabley
Directed by Ahmir-Khalid Thompson
The Summer of 1969 was infamous for its association with the ‘Free Love’ movement sweeping across America, and in particular its ties to the now-infamous Woodstock festival, a historic moment in modern American history. However, in the centre of Harlem that very same summer, it could be argued that a festival of even greater importance was taking place – the Harlem Cultural Festival. Some of the biggest artists in the black community took part in the festivities, which ran every weekend over the course of six weeks, showcasing the incredible talents of a range of artists from Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone to B.B. King and many more.
Before even diving into the qualities which make ‘Summer of Soul’ a great documentary, the fact that it brings to life a key historic event which had been hidden away for over fifty years is something to be celebrated in itself. As the trailer says, if the festival hadn’t been recorded over the course of its runtime, it would be hard to believe any of this ever took place. The six free concerts culminated in a total attendance of around 600,000 people, solidifying the Summer of ‘69 in New York as one of great importance for the Black community.
Moving from act to act over the course of the films two hour runtime, each performer provides a new and unique perspective on not only their music, but the state of the modern world and how they hope to influence the future, which is greatly fleshed out through a variety of filmmaking techniques, from the colourful cinematography to the well-timed editing. It’s hard to pick out individual artists as really dominating the film, as everyone featured provides something important, but out of all the artists, Nina Simone stands out as an untouchable presence, delivering her songs with such great purpose and power that you can’t help but feel slightly amazed that such performances ever really took place.
Not only is the festival which unfolds throughout ‘Summer of Soul’ one of great cultural and social importance, it also just looks like a great amount of fun. Every artist who takes part in a retrospective ‘talking head’ interview speaks extremely highly of the festival, and often mentions the disbelief they felt when they first realised just how many people were in attendance. Knowing that the audience mainly comprised of fellow people of colour as they walked on stage, the entire show feels more like a communal celebration rather than a concert, creating an atmosphere of one giant party. Furthermore, the level of technical ability displayed by these artists is completely mesmerising, whether that be the forward-thinking funk movements of Sly & the Family Stone, the incredible blues capabilities of B.B. King or the deeply moving and powerful vocals of Nina Simone.
‘Summer of Soul’ truly feels like a summer film, and although it may be nearing the end of its runtime on the cinema circuit, I would highly recommend keeping an eye out for it wherever you can. An incredible insight into the music of America in 1969, there aren’t many other films out there like it.